Saturday night’s NBA action had the tough task of following up Kevin Durant‘s career night, but a war between two teams with realistic championship aspirations sure got the job done.
Although, it wasn’t much of a “war” as it was a lopsided battle that still kept you on the edge of your seat.
The Indiana Pacers upended the Los Angeles Clippers in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, 106-92, sweeping the season series with Doc Rivers‘ group. Obviously missing Chris Paul as the NBA’s assist leader continues to heal his shoulder injury, the Clippers have needed their entire guard depth to step up down the stretch. Darren Collison has, for the most part, since becoming the starter, but Saturday was not their best night of offensive execution and ball movement.
Indiana held the Pacific Division leaders to just 39.8 percent shooting, which was the first time since Dec. 30 (vs. Phoenix) that Los Angeles shot below the 40 percent mark.
Western Conference squads seem to underestimate just how stout the Pacers’ defense can be when they are looking to control all activity in the paint. Then, once they visit Indianapolis and go toe to toe with the tree Roy Hibbert himself, they soon get the message. Entering Saturday’s game, Los Angeles had scored over 100 points in seven of their eight games this month, including five over the 110 mark. Indiana buckled down defensively from the opening tip and kept a consistent effort, not allowing the Clippers to run up the score like they have been doing back at Staples Center. Hibbert’s presence certainly accounts for most of that aggression, recording five blocks in the win.
As much as their identity has been on the defensive side the last two seasons, the nature and theme of their recent success has been their collective team production on offense.
In Saturday’s victory, Indiana received huge contributions from superstar and MVP candidate Paul George, as well as All-Star hopeful Lance Stephenson. George was firing on all cylinders from 3-point range, shooting 5-of-6 from deep and 11-of-17 overall to give him his second highest scoring total of the season, 36 points. Meanwhile, it was Stephenson’s penetrating and fastbreak finishes that truly got the crowd in a frenzy. He finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds, and increases the amount of showing off each home game.
Both members of the Pacers’ starting frontcourt, Roy Hibbert and David West, were irrelevant on offense. West was only able to play 15 minutes, as he was ejected directly after the halftime buzzer for elbowing Blake Griffin in the head after the two got tangled up under the basket. It’s fully documented that West can have a temper and a reputation of a throwback player, but he should have just kept his cool in this circumstance. These days it seems Griffin’s playstyle, particularly how he crashes the boards, aggravates his opponents. With that said, West knows a little better than to let a younger player get under his skin.
Then, there was Hibbert’s issue. When facing some of the more physically dominant centers in the league, Hibbert can struggle at times. Playing in the Eastern Conference for majority of the schedule, he can impose his height and offensive rebounding skill to get easy looks. However, against an athletic freak of nature in DeAndre Jordan, he found it quite frustrating to get off clean looks. And when he did set up for his favorite turnaround hook shot (with either hand), he was finding every part of the rim, but the shots just wouldn’t fall. Hibbert finished with just four points on 2-of-11 field goals and 11 rebounds. His tendency to not be a factor on offense is the biggest separator between himself and Dwight Howard, or even a healthy Brook Lopez. Luckily he made up for it by getting quality stops.
Surprisingly, a rather large storyline from this game occurred before the tip.
Clippers’ Head Coach Doc Rivers spoke to the media before warmups, and issued his take on Indiana’s use of the “Rule of Verticality”:
“I don’t know if I would call it verticality,” Rivers said. “I would call it a foul.”
Although he said he was being fun with it, Rivers probably feels that the Pacers aren’t any more prone to committing fouls than any other team. That’s perfectly fine from a coaching standpoint, but just watching Indiana’s interior defense when guards attack the rim and forwards enter their post-ups makes one realize how textbook their strategy is.
A few moments toward the end of the third quarter were exceptionally horrible in terms of officiating. Normally, I’m not one to go berserk over fouls in basketball, but Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford somehow drew the worst foul calls I have witnessed in all my time of watching the sport. Particularly on Crawford’s fastbreak drive to the rim alongside Stephenson, who didn’t lay a finger on him. Yet, the ref standing five feet from the play blew the whistle. You know it was a bad call when Doc Rivers himself glances over at the scorer’s table and issues a smile.
In this blowout that got out of hand in the fourth quarter, one single play stole the entire show.
Paul George, who had already joined Stephenson in celebrating with the fans after big plays, picked off a lazy pass from Collison. Sprinting in the open court, he knew instinctively of what he was going to do: bring the arena into a frenzy.
One reverse 360 windmill dunk later, and the Clippers found themselves down 22 with 5:57 remaining.
After the game, Danny Granger commented on George’s athleticism to complete such a play:
“You know what, I’m not impressed with anything Paul does anymore. He can do some crazy stuff.”
For the Clippers, Hedo Turkoglu played in his second game since being acquired by the team, and seen 13 minutes on the floor. As time progresses, he should be able to add to the perfect balance Los Angeles has with youth and veteran leadership. Off the bench, he may be a dangerous asset in the following months if he stays healthy.
Holding Los Angeles to just 5-0f-20 3-pointers (25 percent) was a significant advantage Indiana capitalized on. The Clippers’ best shooting weapon, J.J. Redick, suffered all night as he connected on zero of his seven attempts from long range, some that were quality looks that he normally makes you pay for.
While I have been on record, since the preseason, proclaiming the 2014 NBA Finals will consist of these two ball clubs, there are still strong doubts arising with this Clippers bunch that are for a later discussion. One thing is for sure, however: Doc Rivers wants it to be a reality in June.
As the final buzzer sounded, Rivers met Coach Vogel and may have foreshadowed the future. “I’d love to play you again,” Rivers said.
With Chris Paul on hand, it would be a Finals matchup all NBA fans can enjoy and respect. After all, everyone loves powerhouse dunks and smash-mouth defense.